Kansas coach Bill Self marvels at his team's collective talent but rages at its inconsistent play. A look inside the unique challenge of coaching America's best team
This is an article from the March 15, 2010 issue
Bill Self has never had a team quite like this one. Yes, this Kansas team is loaded with top-tier talent, including two preseason All-Americas, one of the best freshmen in the country and twins who are demons on the offensive glass. But Self has had loaded teams before. Yes, this team is deep, with eight players averaging more than 15 minutes a game; it sometimes feels as if spectacular players just keep coming off the bench, one after another, like circus clowns piling out of a taxi. But Self has had deep teams before.
No, this team's unique talent is its constant ability to baffle Bill Self.
Take this moment: There are 17 minutes to go in the Kansas--Kansas State game on March 3. The score is tied, and there's a shell-shocked feeling at Allen Fieldhouse. This Kansas State team is gritty and skilled and ranked No. 5 in the country, and the Wildcats players and coaches and fans desperately want to knock off big brother Kansas, the basketball school that has dominated the state for, well, forever. Kansas State has rallied from 13 points down and now seems to be ready to take away this game.
Self calls timeout. He looks at his players. What does he see? Well, he sees something close to the ideal college basketball team. He sees Sherron Collins, a tough-as-calculus senior point guard. He sees Cole Aldrich, a smart big man who can dominate on both ends of the floor. He sees Xavier Henry, a sweet-shooting freshman. He sees the Morris twins, Marcus (6'8") and Markieff (6'9"). He sees the fastest guy on the floor, Tyshawn Taylor, and 24-year-old redshirt junior Brady Morningstar....
What else does he see? "I know we're tough," Self says. "I know we're talented. But...."
But ... Self cannot find the words to follow the conjunction. There is just something puzzling about this team. From the outside, it has all looked so uncomplicated. Kansas was ranked the preseason No. 1. The Jayhawks won their first 14 games before losing at Tennessee. They then won their first 13 Big 12 games and clinched at least a share of their sixth-straight conference title two weeks before the regular season ended.
On the inside, though, life has been confusing. Something has been missing. Self calls the season both "the least enjoyable ride of my coaching life" and "in some ways, as much fun as I've ever had coaching." He has marveled at his players' ability to play well in big moments and raged at what he has perceived as a lack of a killer instinct.
"Guys," Self said in the huddle during that Kansas State timeout, "you have to enjoy this. This is when you find out how tough you are."
For the next 13 minutes the Kansas players employ some kind of defensive death trap. It's staggering to watch. Kansas State's players make only two of 15 shots from the field, turn the ball over four times, find it hard to breathe. Collins, who had looked helpless for 25 minutes, scores seven straight points. Allen Fieldhouse detonates in sound. When the run ends, the Jayhawks lead by 18 points. They go on to an 82--65 victory.
"I don't need to tell you this," Self says after the game, "but when we're good, yeah, we're awfully good."
When Bill Self recruits a player to Kansas, any player, he begins by putting into perspective what basketball means at the school. He will say, "Look, I am never going to be the greatest coach at Kansas. And you are never going to be the greatest player. So we might as well get that straight right off the bat."
Yes, well, it's different at Kansas. That's a big part of this team's story. Expectation. The state tourism slogan is Kansas: As big as you think. Jayhawks basketball is even bigger. The school's first coach was James Naismith, who started the program less than a decade after he invented the game. Naismith's disciple Phog Allen may have been the most influential coach in college basketball history, not only for what he did at Kansas (win 590 games and three national championships) but also for what he did for Kentucky and North Carolina (teach a couple of players named Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith). Allen's best recruit, Wilt Chamberlain, was called the greatest player who ever lived before he played his first game with the Jayhawks.
Things get blown up pretty big at Kansas. The Jayhawks' last national title, in 2008, was sealed by a last-second Mario Chalmers shot that is remembered as Mario's Miracle. The Kansas championship team before that, in 1988, revolved around local legend (and current assistant coach) Danny Manning. That team is remembered as Danny and the Miracles. In Kansas—not unlike in Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina—college basketball is religion. But only in Kansas are championships continuously miraculous.
Enter the 2009--10 Jayhawks. Like Self says, when they're good ... wow. At different times this season their best player has been a senior, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman. How many teams can say that? How many teams could ever say that?
The senior is the indomitable Collins, who has already won more games than any player in Kansas basketball history. Collins grew up on the tough streets of Chicago—his father, Steven, was in jail—and his most obvious quality is that he thrives in the biggest moments. It was his steal and three-pointer in the 2008 national championship game against Memphis that set up Mario's Miracle. He leads the Jayhawks in scoring (15.3) and assists (4.3), but that almost seems beside the point. When Kansas got manhandled at Oklahoma State for its first conference loss of the season, it was Collins who took the blame. "I didn't have my team ready," he says.
The junior is Aldrich, who averages 11.3 points and 9.7 boards and set the school record for most blocked shots in a season (110). Alltime Division I winningest coach and current ESPN analyst Bob Knight, among others, believes Aldrich is the essential player on this Jayhawks team because he can control the game on the offensive and defensive ends. "Cole makes us go," Collins says.
The sophomore is Marcus Morris, who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds a game since Big 12 play began. He's rangy, athletic and so active that he can demoralize teams with his ability to grab offensive rebounds. When Marcus tires or gets into foul trouble, Kansas can send in his only slightly less effective twin brother Markieff, who was probably the best player on the floor for much of the Kansas State game. "The twins, they're unbelievably bright players," Self says. "They see the game like coaches, they really do."
The freshman is Henry, who made no secret of the fact that he was coming to Kansas only because the age rule prevented him from going to the NBA. His has been an up-and-down season—freshman years often are—but Henry has been the team's best offensive player of late, averaging 16.6 points over the last eight games.
Those are the stars. But sophomore guard Taylor has game-changing speed, junior guard Morningstar provides tough defense and junior guard Tyrel Reed hits 44.9% of his three-pointers. And that freshman class. More than one NBA scout believes Thomas Robinson and Elijah Johnson are two of the best pro prospects on the Jayhawks. It's like Self found a genie and wished this team into existence.
"We have good players," Self says in one of his more classic understatements. "And we're a good team. I mean, I'm really proud of them. But...."
And there's that word again.
The season began with controversy. In late September several Kansas basketball players got into a well-publicized fight with Kansas football players. Days later one of the team's leaders—Morningstar—was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Self admitted that it ripped him apart.
"I coached mad for three months," Self says. "I just couldn't forgive the players for doing that, for giving people a reason to question our program."
And in many ways Self has never stopped coaching mad. He's famous for being one of college basketball's nicest guys off the court, but he has always been relentless on the court. This year he has been even more so. Nothing has felt good enough. "Coach believes this team is underachieving," one Kansas insider says. "But how do you convince the best team in America that they're underachieving?"
Maybe this gets to the heart of Self's bafflement. Last Saturday, Kansas played at Missouri and played sloppy. They trailed early. Self was enraged. His face was three shades of red. He called timeout and lit into his players who have grown used to these sessions. The Jayhawks promptly scored the last 16 points of the first half. Missouri came back and cut the Kansas lead to four. The Jayhawks then went on a 17--2 run.
"We need to understand that when it comes to the tournament, you have to play every possession," Self says. "Sometimes we'll just putter around for a while and then go on a big run and put the game away and [then] putter around some more. You can't do that in the tournament. Sometimes that big run doesn't happen."
If it sounds as if Self doth protest too much, well, he doesn't hide from that. There isn't a team in America that has Kansas's combination of size, speed, shooting and experience. The Jayhawks lead the Big 12 in scoring and scoring defense, three-point field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. They can beat teams in a physical half-court game with their smothering defense. They can beat teams in a fast-paced, full-court frenzy with their depth and athleticism.
"But," Self says, and there's that word again. Maybe it's like this: After the Kansas State win—after those 13 remarkable minutes when Kansas played otherworldly basketball—this reporter asked Self what he thought about the game. He said, "I thought at times we played good. At times we really didn't."
And when asked how he could find fault with a team that had destroyed a motivated and terrific Kansas State team, he laughed a little.
"This team doesn't handle prosperity very well," Self said. "We have a chance to be a special team. But ... we have to do it. That's the thing. And I don't need to tell them how good they are. They already think they're awfully good."
They are awfully good. But—and these are the words that follow—Self knows that awfully good teams lose in March every year. And for Kansas fans hungry for the next miracle, an early exit would break a lot of hearts.
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